Lasers, microwaves and other directed energy weapons could soon be used more widely by the U.S. military, top armed forces officials and U.S. lawmakers told an industry conference on Tuesday.
The officials described weapons that are in various stages of development and testing by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army, but said more work was needed to develop tactics for their use and to ensure sufficient funding.
“Directed energy brings the dawn of an entirely new era in defense,” Lieutenant General William Etter, Commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, told a conference hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington.
Directed energy refers to weapons that emit focused energy in the form of lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves, sound or particle beams.
Etter and other officials said such weapons could lower the cost of current weapons, speed up responses to enemy attacks and cut deaths of civilians in the battlefield, but tough policy questions remained about their deployment.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the conference the Navy was encouraged by testing of a laser deployed on the USS Ponce in the Gulf, which can destroy small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles, and can also be used as a telescope.
Mabus said the Navy was extending deployment of the laser on the Ponce, and using lessons learned to help produce a 100-150 kilowatt laser prototype for testing at sea in 2018 or sooner. He said a powerful new railgun that could hit targets 100 miles away would also be tested at sea next year. A railgun is an electrically powered electromagnetic projectile launcher.
He said the Navy would release a comprehensive road map this fall for developing, acquiring and fielding high-power radio frequency weapons, lasers and directed energy countermeasures.
Mabus said Iran and other countries were already using lasers to target ships and commercial airliners, and the U.S. military needed to accelerate often cumbersome acquisition processes to ensure that it stayed ahead of potential foes.
Major General Jerry Harris, vice commander of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force had developed a high-power microwave weapon that could be used to disperse crowds in a non-lethal manner by rapidly raising their body temperature. He said the system could be used on drones or other aircraft and be put to use immediately.